A little over two years after the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was captured and killed by rebel militiamen outside the town of Sirte, the Libyan state is teetering on the brink of collapse. A dozen different militia organizations have more authority than the central government, and if ordinary civilians protest at their arbitrary rule they get shot.
That happened in Benghazi, in the east of the country, in June, when 31 peaceful demonstrators were shot dead and many others wounded while protesting outside the barracks of the “Libyan Shield Brigade.”
It happened again in Tripoli just last week, when a militia brigade from Misrata that has been roosting in the capital for the past two years used heavy machine guns on unarmed civilians who were demanding that it go home, killing 43 and wounding hundreds.
In between, there have been some 80 assassinations of senior police and government officials. Last month the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped by gunmen of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room group. Almost all the east and the south of the country are controlled by militias who have seized the main oilfields and ports.
Oil exports, the country’s only significant source of revenue, have dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day last summer to only 200,000. Deprived of most of its income, the government will run out of money to pay its employees next month — including the militias that harass it, for it pays them off too. And once the militias are no longer getting their protection money, things may get even worse in Libya.
The militias now have 225,000 members in a country of only 5 million people. Only about one-tenth of the militiamen actually fought in the war, but in a country with 40 percent unemployment it’s the best job going, so they do not lack recruits. And from the beginning what passes for a national government in Libya, lacking any army or police of its own, hired the militias to enforce its authority. As a result, they have become the real authorities.
The eastern half of the country, Cyrenaica, with 80 percent of the oil, is now in practice a separate entity, run by militias that demand “federalism” but really mean independence. Prime Minister Zeidan warned in August that “any vessel not under contract to the National Oil Company that approaches the [oil] terminals [in Cyrenaica] will be bombed,” and so far none has dared to — but that means nobody gets the income. It is a truly horrible mess.
Could this have been avoided? Probably not. After 42 years of Gaddafi’s brutal rule there was no civil society in Libya that could support a democratic government and effectively demand respect for human rights and an end to corruption. Foreign occupation might have supplied some of the necessary skills to run a modern state, but would have been violently rejected by Libyans. Besides, there were no foreigners willing to take on the job.
You have to start from where you are. Libya is taking much longer than the optimists expected to get to where it needs to be: a democratic state that respects its citizens and enforces the law impartially. At the moment it’s not even heading in that direction: Prime Minister Zeidan worries that it might become “an Afghanistan or a Somalia.”
Probably not. The country’s oil wealth can only flow, whether to the warlords or to the citizens, if there is a reasonable degree of peace and order. That is a powerful incentive to cooperation, even if much of the negotiation seems to be done with guns. And there is a kind of civil society emerging in Libya now: those crowds of protesters that the militias massacred were actually evidence that it exists.
It will be years more before the Libyans manage to sort themselves out, but in the end they probably will. They will probably remain a single country, too, although a highly decentralized and federalized one. But it’s very bad now, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.